Born a Creationist, Merck’s Schadt Leads Open Source Effort to Unravel Genome

3/13/09Follow @xconomy

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for wearing the same trademark rumpled white polo shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals, to work every day (except when it’s below 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside, he says). Schadt has curly brown hair that hangs off to the right side, lively eyes, and a chubby midsection. If Hollywood were to make a movie of his life story, the lead role would go to Jack Black.

This unusual life story begins in Schadt’s hometown of Stevensville, MI—population 1,100 or so—just off Interstate 94, about a half-hour from South Bend, IN.

He grew up as one of seven children in the family. His mother stayed at home, and his Dad was a barber until Eric was in sixth grade, when he became an insurance agent, Schadt says. His parents were devout Baptists until he was in 9th grade, then switched to an evangelical free church. They were “extremely conservative” and stressed the Biblical story of creation, he says. The family didn’t have much money. “It was a hard road,” Schadt says.

His school didn’t recognize his academic abilities either, so Schadt channeled his energy into sports like cross country, gymnastics, and wrestling. He scored a 27 on the ACT college entrance exam—probably good enough in the early 1980s to get into a prestigious college like Northwestern University—yet no guidance counselor urged him to go to college. Instead, he joined the Air Force. “It’s a striking failure of the education system,” Schadt says.

In the Air Force, he joined an elite rescue program that pushed his physical stamina to the limits. “It was like Delta Force or the Navy SEALs, but not in a combat role, but for rescues,” he says. One day during drills, he severely dislocated a shoulder, and that was the end of that career. Then he took intelligence tests to see what else he could do, and the results were “off the charts,” he says.

Schadt was stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California at the time and still had service obligations to fulfill, so that meant college had to be nearby for him to attend. He chose California Polytechnic State University, where he got a bachelor’s in applied math and computer science. At the tail end of his undergraduate experience, as the Cold War wound down in the late 1980s, he was introduced to some CIA signal processing teams that worked to ensure secure communications. If he ever wanted to understand the algorithms that made such work possible, he knew he had to go to graduate school.

So he went to UCLA to study pure mathematics, but quickly got tired of the theoretical nature of the field. “I really wanted more than 50 people on the planet to understand what I was doing,” he says. It was around that time, the early-to-mid 1990s, that momentum was building for the Human Genome Project, that relied on mathematicians. UCLA had a “hard-core” bio-mathematics program at the time, which drew him in. But pursuing this field would mean colliding head-on against everything he had been raised to believe. “Biology says we evolved, but my background says we were created. How can this be?” he wondered.

He got uncomfortable when I pressed him … Next Page »

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